Friday, July 23, 2010

One of My Favorite Items From the 2008 Lego Brickfair

In 2008 I had the pleasure of reporting on Brickfair, an annual convention for Lego fans held in Northern Virginia.

In keeping with the theme of today's App O' the Mornin', here's a playable Lego Settlers of Catan, built by Suzanne Rich.

Modern Warfare 2: Ignoring the Call of Duty

Last winter, I wrote about my serious problems with Modern Warfare 2 in stories that appeared in Maximum PC, Games, and the National Catholic Register. With Call of Duty: Black Ops set to kick up the violence yet another notch, it seemed worthwhile for me to republish my original Modern Warfare 2 comments. This version is closest to the one that appeared in the Register on December 4th, 2009. 

I should also point out that everything COD gets wrong in multiplayer, content, and gameplay is done right in Bad Company 2. It's still a mature, violent, M-rated game, but it's a good one. 

When Steven Spielberg collaborated on the creation of the first “Medal of Honor” game in 1999, he wanted to create an interactive analog to Saving Private Ryan.

It was something fresh and intense: an attempt to use all the tricks of game design — immersive sound, bobbing motion, layers of action, goal-oriented gameplay — to put you inside a war movie.

Activision and Infinity Ward followed with the “Call of Duty” series in 2003. Over the course of three games, “Call of Duty” developed the World War II theme while maintaining a “Teen” rating thanks to a minimal use of blood and foul language.

Multiplayer gameplay made the series popular with young gamers, and extensive historical context and period footage made them popular with parents. This was the way a new generation of boys “played war.”
Things started to shift with “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” More intense modern firefights, increased blood and more mature language was used to evoke the modern battlefield, earning a “Mature” rating. Fair enough. It was a strong game, with heroic characters and a terrific multiplayer mode.

When the series returned to World War II for “Call of Duty: World at War,” the “Mature” rating came with it.

The blood and gore increased, and if parents happened to see an early scene of torture and murder, they might have wondered just what they’d let in their home.

But they didn’t. “Call of Duty” was a “safe” first-person shooter, wasn’t it? That “Mature” rating? Just a little bit more blood, their kids assured them.

And now we come to “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” the most intensely hyped game of the season, opening with the biggest launch of any entertainment product in history: It hauled in $310 million in 24 hours.

Now parents are faced with a game that turns all the dials up to 11 and blows out the speakers. The gameplay is a nonstop assault on the senses: gunfire, explosions, screams, blood spattering the screen, flying gore and convulsing bodies. This is to say nothing of the storyline and context, which are nihilistic, brutal, cynical, anti-American, antiheroic and antimilitary.

Bit by bit, parents were betrayed. They justified incremental increases in mature content by saying, “Well, it’s just a little bit more intense” until finally they walk in on their 11-year-old and witness this:

A group of men enter an airport where civilians are peacefully waiting for their flights. The image on the screen is the perspective of your character, gun in hand. Calmly, slowly, methodically, the men walk through two entire levels of the airport mowing down civilians. They scream, run and drag their wounded bodies through smears of their own blood until someone, perhaps you, puts a bullet in their heads. Scores of unarmed people are mowed down. At the very end, your character is shot in the head, left staring lifelessly at the ceiling as blood pools around him.

It is one of the ugliest and most disturbing things I have ever seen in a mainstream game. It leaves the gamer feeling brutalized and violated, or at least it should if he hasn’t already been numbed by a steady diet of violence.

The designers, no doubt, think they’re being very bold and mature in grinding their fans’ noses in the muck, but it’s hard to imagine a more complete betrayal of a franchise. Is the cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians really an experience on the emotional spectrum that we need not only witness, but simulate?

The designers’ defense is that they warn you about a “disturbing” mission and allow you to skip it, but this is rank nonsense. People are so immune to “controversial” content warnings that, without specifics, they are unlikely to bypass part of the game. In fact, for the young people who most desperately need to skip this sequence, such a warning is pure catnip.

The rest of “Modern Warfare” never quite matches that level of ugly nihilism, but it still wallows in moral relativism. The airport sequence is there to tell you, quite plainly, that the designers see no difference between terrorists and U.S. Army Rangers. There are no good guys, only competing ideologies. This is a military game that hates the military, with Americans depicted as either dim grunts or lunatic cowboys with no regard for human life.

No doubt, the designers think they’re being very daring and mature: so daring that the bad guys are “Russian nationalists,” not jihadists. If Infinity Ward was really so committed to depicting the moral ambiguities and horrors of the modern battlefield, then “Modern Warfare 2” wouldn’t be so politically correct.

And for all this, the gameplay really isn’t all that spectacular. “Modern Warfare 2” is actually a pretty middling shooter with a decent multiplayer component. There’s no covering fire, enemy units seem to pop out of nowhere without any logic or consistency, and overwhelming opposition takes the place of sophisticated AI. The storyline is such gibberish that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, and levels seem to have no clear purpose. You simply move forward on a roughly predetermined path until one level ends and the next begins. Multiplayer remains a strength of the series and will keep the game alive long after its execrable narrative campaign is forgotten.

If “Modern Warfare 2” proves anything, it’s that parents need to pay attention to ratings. They are there for a reason. If you wouldn’t let your children see an R-rated movie, then don’t let them play an M-rated game unless you have a comprehensive, direct understanding of its content. Eternal vigilance is the price of parenthood.

Lego Universe in Beta

We've been participating in the beta for the upcoming Lego Universe game, and it's already looking spectacular. NetDevil is creating a massively multiplayer online game based on several of Legos product lines, such as city, pirate, space, and jungle, with more to come. So far, several worlds have been built around a core spaceport: Avant Gardens, Gnarled Forest, Pet Cove and Forbidden Valley. We probably won't be seeing licensed lines like Star Wars, Batman, or Harry Potter (those gaming rights are owned by others), but all of Lego's original lines should be grist for the mill.

Gamers begin in a spaceport, which acts as both hub and training ground. They learn the controls, assembled a rocket, and then blast off to explore worlds and have adventures. Because the game is not finished (and still not quite stable), we remain under press embargo. That means I can't talk too much about our experience with the software, or run my own screen shots.

However, I can say that it's already shaping up to be the most exciting PC release of the year.

Building will be a big part of the gameplay, with various options for adding things to the world. Universe will include the one-button “quick build” interface found in Lego video games, but it’s also promising more complex options. There will be not only building “choice,” in which you can modify and customize quick build models, but also a completely free-ranging custom build option where anything goes. Previous Lego design software has been fairly sophisticated, allowing users to build items brick by brick. If NetDevil finds a way to integrate these tools into a massively multiplayer online world, then they will succeed in making the most customizable online game ever.

Gameplay appears to be pretty far ranging, with multiple choices and paths to follow. Characters develop over time, advancing in levels as they achieve goals and earn treasure. The early previews depict a Lego version of classic co-op MMORPG gameplay. Characters group their minifigs into teams in order to complete adventures, with all the fighting taking place against a common foe. Gamers can fill various roles depending upon their preferences, whether that means being a fighter, builder, treasure hunter, or something else.

Lego also wants to become a social destination, however, which means that conversation, minigames, and non-combat competitions are also being planned. It become an effective “lobby” destination like Club Penguin, allowing younger gamers to pop in for some light gameplay without engaging in serious adventuring.  

My Lego-addicted son is absolutely quivering with anticipation based on his early time in the game world. I never, EVER participate in Betas, so you can tell how excited we are by this release. (Although I used to cover beta software in my early years with PC Gamer, I no longer have the desire or patience to mess about with unfinished code.)

When this thing is released in October, kids all over the world are going to be saying "Club What?" and leaving their virtual WebKinz pets to starve.

Actually, the prospect of a kiddie World of Warcraft may not be such a great thing after all. We have enough adult MMO gaming addicts already.

Definitions: Classic Games, American-style

I defined European-style games yesterday, so it seems fair to give “American-style” games a fair shake today. They go by a lot of names—mainstream games, classic games, family games—but they all have a few things in common.

1. Everyone knows their names. Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, Yahtzee, Boggle, Battleship, Sorry, Trouble, Risk, Life, Uno, Stratego, and Trivial Pursuit. I could also probably add Candyland, Operation, Connect 4, and Twister. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others, but off the top of my head, those seem to be the big names we all know.

2. Almost all of them are from Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers, and both of those companies are now owned by Hasbro. This gives Hasbro an actual monopoly over classic games in America. Uncle Pennybags would be in awe.

3. They have been around fooorever. Of all those games, only one can be considered “modern,” and that’s Trivial Pursuit, invented about 30 years ago.

Not Good
4. They are endlessly malleable and can be jammed, crammed, folded, molded, spindled, and otherwise mutilated to fit any license. If someone is going to makes games to promote the latest Shrek, Toy Story, or Twilight movie, they’re going to make a version of one of these.
The other day I saw a “Shrek Operation” game in the store. No child should have the joy crushed from his soul by opening a birthday present only to find a “Shrek Operation” game inside. I don’t have solid proof, but I suspect this is what creates serial killers.
            I like to imagine what the product line meetings are like at Hasbro:
            “Hey Bob, I just landed the Twilight license.”
            “My MAN!” [High fives all around.]
            “Okay, take the afternoon and drag Twilight through the classic games backlist and see what sticks.”
            “You got it, Bob.”
            “I’m thinking Trivial Pursuit. We can come up with a lot of questions only obsessed 13-year-old goth girls could answer.”
            “I totally dig it, Bob.”
            “And maybe Stratego, with those werewolf things versus those vampire things.”
            “Consider it done.”
            “And Scrabble, where the only letters you have are BELLA and EDWARD.”
            “And Life! That one should be a snap! You go through the entire game, and to win you die and become a vampire.  We can have a ‘Bella gives birth’ card!”
            “And Twister! One of the spaces on the spinner can be ‘neck bite’.”
            “I think legal might object to that one.”
            “You’re starting to scare me, Bob.”

5. For most Americans, these games are bound up in memories our youth and our families. These are games we played when we were kids, and they often were the first board game we were given. They came out on rainy days. They came out in the evening when your parents decided it was a No-TV night. They came out when the relatives came over. They came out when you and your pals couldn’t think of anything else to do.

Gamers who move on to Eurogames often leave the classics behind with a sneer. I admit to a healthy hatred for several titles on that list (yeah, I’m looking in your direction, Risk, Sorry, and Trouble), but it’s silly to dismiss time-tested classics like these simply because they’re not the latest game from Bruno Faidutti. I would probably never pick Monopoly as my game of choice for an evening, but with the right group it's still a great game, particularly if you avoid silly house rules. (The thing most people hate about Monopoly--its length--is largely a product of house rules that keep flushing extra money into the system.)

Classic American games still have a lot of kick left in them, and played correctly, they still make for an evening of fun with the greatest number of people. Most people who come over to your house already know how to play them, so there’s a shared understanding that goes back years.

The Very Stuff of Nightmares
Look, I played so many rounds of Candyland when my kids were young that Queen Frostine wound up haunting my dreams. This is not a pleasant thing, in case you're wondering.

However, I would never, ever knock Candyland. It's usually the first game anyone plays, and it teaches kids all the basic lessons of game-playing: taking turns, drawing cards, moving pieces, and using a marker to represent yourself on the board. These are not innate concepts: they have to be taught, and that's what Candyland does.

And if God is merciful, I shall never, ever, ever do it again.

App O' The Mornin': Catan

Settlers of Catan is considered old hat by a lot of people who are passionate about games, follow all the latest releases, and are eager to debate the pros and cons of everything they play. Yet the game remains important for a few reasons.

  1. It’s a terrific design. Period. Spin it any way you like, make any kind of new version, and you still have a rock solid foundation of good design. (The randomness doesn’t bother me in the least. Don’t fear the dice, people.)
  2. It remains the only Eurogame with a fighting chance of breaking into the mainstream with titles like Monopoly and Scrabble. The other day I found a copy in Target. TARGET! Can Walmart be far behind?
  3. It’s still the single best gateway game to introduce people to Eurogaming. It’s easy to explain, very interactive, and a lot of fun.
  4. The majority of people in this country have never heard of it. My 9-year-old daughter is completely hooked on Settlers. Whole generations are still waiting to discover it. Everything is new to someone.

So, in keeping with the theme of this blog (“if it can be played, I’ll write about it”) I will be writing about Catan, even though it is about 15 years old by now. Just like I’ll be writing about Scrabble, Rummy, and anything else that can be played.

As for the Catan app, it’s simply magic. It was one of the first great conversions of a major design, and although we’ve seen others since then (Carcassonne, Roll Through The Ages, High Society, Money), it still holds its own.

Yes, it’s a simple conversion with meager graphics and only a few customization options. But it’s Catan! For iPhone/Touch! And it works great. Shrinking this masterpiece down to pocket size and still leaving it playable has taken some minor miracle of programming genius.

For those who’ve never played it before (and shame on you), the game is played on a board made of randomly assembled tiles, each representing a different resource: brick, wool, lumber, stone, and wheat. You use these resources to buy cards and build settlements and roads, which all add together to make a winning score. The map can be arranged in various ways, there’s an opportunity to bargain and trade with other players, and a bit of luck in the form of dice throwing.

The Catan app handles all this very well. The game autozooms when you need to place roads, settlements, and cities, but otherwise displays the full board (albeit one limited to a single shape). A simple control wheel pops up for trades and card purchase/play, and dice are rolled automatically at the beginning of each turn. A selection of AI opponents offer a diverse range of challenges, and a few rule customization options (start with one city, start with different resources, etc) mix up play a bit. You can also play against live opponents by passing the device around, although a true online version (using Bluetooth, internet, or WiFi) remains elusive.

This is portable Catan with a respectable AI and simple controls for $5, and that’s all most people will need to know.

UPDATE: Welcome Catan Facebook fans! This is a new blog which will cover all aspects of gaming, from beginner to advanced. Stick around, read some of the introductory posts, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

From the Vault: Autobridge

Autobridge Playing Board, circa 1938
From time to time, I may post some items from my game collection. First up is this exceptionally strange piece of cutting-edge solitaire bridge-playing technology, circa 1938.

You close the little sliders, then put the sheets under the frame. A sequence of numbers appear in a little window when all the sliders are in the start position. You open each door in number order, revealing the current card in play.

Each sheet even contains game commentary by Ely Culbertson.The whole item was manufactured of Textolite by General Electric, for Autobridge Inc. I don't recall where I got this, but I think it came in a lot with some other games, perhaps from Sid Sackson's collection. (Sid was a major game designer and collector.)

And if you think such technology is just a relic of the pre-computer age, you'd be wrong.

Games Magazine: September Issue

Here's the cover for the new issue.  I have the usual assortment of reviews and news pieces in there, including 8 more App reviews.

The cover puzzle is a maze by Bob Abbott: "Travel along the paths from Start to Goal. At each junction, you may not reverse direction, and you may only continue on a path that has either the same color or the same design element (diamond, squiggle, or neither) as the one you were just on." (There's a larger version of the image at Abbott's site.)

Buy it wherever better publications are sold. (Barnes & Noble and Borders usually have it in their puzzle or hobby section.)

Definitions: What Are “Eurogames”?

No, they’re not games you play with a struggling transnational currency. (Although collapsing economies may in fact free up a lot of worthless paper for use in games.) The term “Eurogame,” or “European-style” or “German-style” gaming, is a reference to a boardgaming subgenre and design aesthetic. Europeans—particularly the Germans—are mad for boardgames, but they have a different style compared to more “American” games like Monopoly or Clue.
Ticket to Ride

What exactly is that style? Well, it’s a fluid thing: you just kinda know it when you see it. Some people say that Eurogame designers tend to eschew chance (ie: dice roles) in favor of more strategic play, but that’s just not correct. I can probably name one Eurogame that relies upon chance for every one that doesn’t.

If I had to break down a few characteristics of the Eurogame, they would be these:

1. Unusual themes. Once you start boring into the Eurogame genre, you’ll find all manner of unusual themes, from delivering fruit around the island of Mallorca using donkey carts (Finca) to helping stone age tribes gather food, make tools, procreate, and generally find their way through a prehistoric industrial revolution (Stone Age).

2. Minimal combat. That’s not to say no combat, but it’s not a common element.

3. Focus on trade. Certainly not all European games are trading or economic games, but a significant proportion have these elements.

4. Simple mechanics, complex strategies. If I had to pick the most appealing part about European-style game design, it would be their elegance and simplicity. If you’ve never played anything beyond the standard roster of American-style games, then this may not seem like the case until you get a few rounds of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride or some other gateway game under your belt. But, once you grasp a few basic mechanics (worker placement, trading, building, etc), you’ll find they apply to a majority of the most popular games on the market.

5. Colorful components and appealing production. Eurogames are expensive ($30 to $60 on average), but they simply look and feel better. Pieces are painted wood or heavy plastic, cards are on heavy stock, boards are on thick cardboard, and artwork is generally superior.

Oddly enough, the progenitor of European-style games was an American title from one of the deans of game design. Sid Sackson’s Aquire, first released in the 1960s, is the title that found its way to Europe and inspired several generations of game designers. It can be considered the “first Eurogame.”

Avalon Hill also produced many games that anticipated the Eurogame boom, but often mired their designs in fussy details and obscure rules. Modern Eurogames simplified those elements to create a new genre. After they established their popularity in Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s, they finally made a splash on these shores when Mayfair games imported Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan, which remains a hugely popular series and a perfect gateway game for introducing new players to Eurogames.

As it stands now, a few large companies translate and import most Eurogames to these shores. Rio Grande, Mayfair, Gryphon/Eagle, and a few others produce a large amount of the product available on American shelves.

One of the most respected Eurogame-style producers isn’t European at all. Days of Wonder makes some of the best (and best produced) games in the business, including Ticket to Ride, Memoir 44, Small World, and many others.

Some recommended beginner titles for those new to Eurogaming are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, or some of Gryphon’s Bookshelf series. These are mostly old warhorses, but they’re still around because they appeal to the largest number of players, are easily available, and are a good way to move new gamers into the genre.

(If you decide to buy any of these on, please use my link to help support this site.)

App O' The Mornin': Angry Birds

I had an experience with some angry birds this weekend. I got too close to a swallow’s nest under my eaves, without realizing that the hatchlings had already turned into fledglings. Also: they didn’t really want to be photographed, and who can blame them? They popped out of their nest like a shot and my head was soon engulfed by four angry, dive-bombing birds.

Lesson learned, although it’s a lesson I should have already learned since I’d spent a few hours in the company of some very angry birds. Rovio’s Angry Birds is a certified hit on iPhone, iTouch, and iPad, blowing away big name competition like Tetris, Splinter Cell, and Call of Duty. It’s had the number 1 spot grasped firmly in its beak for weeks now, and it shows no signs of letting go.

What accounts for the huge success of Angry Birds, which has replaced Doodle Jump and Plants vs. Zombies as the must-have, super-addictive iPhone game?

It’s certainly not the originality of the design. This is “Crush the Castle” … with birds. It’s a simple ballistic puzzle game, in which you use a slingshot to shoot a variety of birds at structures in order to knock them down, thus killing the nefarious green pigs lurking inside.

Why are the pigs green? Why did they steel the birds’ eggs? Why are they living inside of structures made of frozen Jenga blocks?

Why are you even asking? It’s a fun, nutty, endlessly entertaining game that has really caught on with mobile gamers. Part of the appeal lay in its simplicity: find the right angle and use the proper combination of birds to knock down the structure for the most points. It’s an easy pick-up-and-play title with a huge selection of puzzles, and new puzzles are added (for free) with alarming regularity.

But the game’s appeal almost certainly stems from its visual style. After all, “Crush the Castle” wasn’t nearly this big a hit and it offered much the same play. The key is the bright visual style, funny sound effects, and the sight of those angry birds determined to punish the thieving pigs. It’s not a case of style over substance, since there is plenty of substance. But it is a case of style PLUS substance PLUS low price ($1) making for a certified hit. It’s one you should really check out if you have the hardware.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Starting Tomorrow: App O' the Mornin'

I love apps. Between the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, Apple has brewed up a powerful revolution that is already changing the way we interact with data and each other. I’m using my iPod Touch for RSS feeds, news, email, Facebook, and games so much that my laptop is now mostly used for actual writing and some web reading.

A few months ago, we introduced App coverage to Games Magazine, and as I begin working on the Games 100 issue (our special December best-of-the-year supplement), I plan to include a large selection of apps among the best games of the year. Tomorrow, I’ll begin regular coverage of apps in this space.

Who Am I?

I am a professional game journalist, and have been so for 20 years.

What that means (for me) is that I write about games for magazines and newspapers, and they pay me enough to meet the mortgage and fill the fridge.

What that means (for my kids) is that “Daddy plays games for a living.”

Well, yes and no. I do play games as part of my job, but no one pays people just to play games. (Even beta testers need to keep logs.) They don’t pay me to game: they pay me write. Playing games is just part of the research process. (Note to men who attempt to use this line on your wives: unless you are getting paid, playing games is not part of any research process.)

I have to keep up with current releases and play the bad games too, so it’s not all puppy dogs and lollipops, but as jobs go, it probably doesn’t get much better this side of Pillow Fluffiness Tester. (“Hmm, I’m not sure if that last one was a little too firm. Let me lie here for another hour to be sure.”)

My dad was a sheet metal worker who was brutalized, and ultimately seriously injured, by years of hard labor on construction sites. That I can work at home, volunteer around the community, help take care of my kids, do something I like, and then write about it in order to make a passable living is the kind of blessing I don’t deserve, so you’ll never catch me complaining because I had to play through a piece of sewage like Grand Theft Auto IV. It beats the hell out of what most men have to do to earn some scratch. God has been good to me, even if my natural Irish fatalism keeps me wondering when He might pull the rug out.

How I fell into this career is a story I’ll leave for another post. (We don’t choose our careers, they choose us.) But now is a good time for some general introductions.

My name is Thomas L. McDonald, and I am one of two “Editors-at-Large” for Games Magazine. “Editor-at-Large” means “Editor-Who-Never-Comes-Into-The-Office-and-Works-in-His-Jammies-and-Usually-Has-To-Beg-For-Accounting-to-Send-Him-His-Checks.” In practical terms, this means that I’m a department editor, responsible for several pages of reviews, columns, and features in each issue. My main beat is “Electronic Entertainment,” but I try to cover conventional (board, card, table, and role-playing) games whenever possible.
I have two other regular gigs as well. For the past 14-odd years, I’ve written the “Game Theory” column for Maximum PC magazine (formerly boot, formerly CD-ROM Today), and for the past two years I’ve been bringing a parent’s perspective to the subject in a monthly spot for the National Catholic Register, as well as occasional pieces for Faith & Family.

I’ve been covering video and computer games since 1990. During that time, I’ve been a feature writer, reviewer, and columnist for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Computer Gaming World, the Star-Ledger, PC Magazine, and many others.

A short time ago I calculated my average annual output and came to the realization that I’ve published about 1500 pieces. It’s probably more than that, and some of them are under other names or uncredited altogether. In truth, I’ll never know just how much I’ve published, and I certainly don’t have copies of it all, but we can simply say “a lot” and leave it at that.

I’ve also published 3 books: one gaming, one humor, and one horror anthology. Long lists of writer credits are boring, so I’ll just refer you to the canned bio under the About tab, and leave it at that.

Some readers who have been PC gaming hobbyists for a long time still remember me under the byline of T. Liam McDonald, which I used for roughly the first decade of my career. I stopped using it after the sudden insight that a) no one calls me Liam because b) that’s not actually my name (Liam is the Gaelic for William, my middle name: I changed it because I don’t like the letter “W”) and c) it made me sound like a pretentious twit. (It’s not that I’m not a pretentious twit, mind you: I just didn’t want to sound like one.)

As for the personal side of things: I’m married to a wonderful woman for 20 years this year; I have 2 children (ages 12 and 9), 1 dog, and 4 frogs; I’m a practicing Catholic and 8th Level catechist; and I live in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

And, since long blog posts are boring, I’m going to split this up into a couple of parts, beginning with Part the Second, In Which I Tell You Why We’re Here.


I have no desire to be a one stop resource for gaming reviews, news, and discussion. Other sites do that far better than I ever could. Of all the many blogs and sites, these five provide 90% of all the information or links I could ever want.
The 800-pound gorilla of conventional gaming. It’s a bottomless treasure trove of of information and conversation, with active forums and hot-and-cold running advice on tap. I’ve never posted there for a simple reason: I don’t like posting in forums. People who like to follow debates and get news and hints, however, could find no better place.

The Dice Tower
Tom Vasel’s Dice Tower podcasts and videos are the only ones I listen to or watch. I don’t know Tom Vasel, but he comes across as a very knowledge board gamer, and has an appealing presence in both his videos and podcasts. The Dice Tower videos are almost always a first stop when I need to explain a new game to people. His co-host is Eric Summerer, and together they put out a very professional podcast.

Boardgame News
New releases, dates, columns, and general data dumps are BGN’s specialty. If you need to keep up with the current release in the Eurogaming genre, this is the place to be.

Game Rankings
For computer and video games, there is no better front end than Game Rankings, which provides summary scores and review links for every platform and format.

Pagat Card Games
The largest collection of playing card game rules and variants in existence. Compiled, revised, and expanded over many years, it is a resource of amazing size, scope, and depth. With a deck of Bicycle 808s and this site, your gameplay needs could be met for life.

Why Am I Here?

I’ve been kicking around the idea of a blog for some time, torn by two competing thoughts:

First Thought: I’m a big fan of blogs and new media.

Second Thought: I’m not a big fan of working for free.

Sorry if that sounds mercenary, but there it is. Writing is how I earn my daily bread. My dad didn’t bend sheet metal into ductwork in his off hours, and my mom didn’t sneak into the offices of NJ Bell to answer phones on her down time.

What finally got me to start blogging was the simple realization that a) I love the subject with the passion of a fan, and b) I have a lot more to say that I have professional space in which to say it.

I also felt the need to cover subjects and angles that I would never cover for a magazine or newspaper. Since I have a reputation as a technology reporter covering computer and video games, I have far less opportunity to write about the conventional games that give my family and me so much pleasure.

The desire to blog has been growing over the past year or so, as my daughter finally got old enough to start playing more complex games. This gave our family a chance to bring out the Euro-game classics, and titles like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride came to life again when seen through fresh eyes.

We started making a run through the entire roster of classic games, and began teaching the kids all the card games that seem to have fallen out of favor with the younger generation. The simple process of teaching basic Rummy with a deck of Bicycle cards was like teaching them a new language, and gave me the opportunity to see these past-times, both the simple and complex ones, as though they were new. (I had assumed everyone just somehow KNEW that the face cards ranked Jack-Queen-King, but how could they if they’ve never been told, or if they’ve been playing other games with a deck of Looney Tunes cards in which the suits were Porky-Daffy-Bugs?)

I also began to see how much was being lost in the over-saturated world of electronic media. Now, I love electronic media. You will have to pry my iTouch or my Xbox 360 from my cold dead hands. But I also realize their limitations, and as a traditionalist in almost all other aspects of my life and belief system, I prize the chance to keep alive simpler pleasures. No one with a deck of playing cards need ever be bored, and a generation of kids that has never heard of Shadow Tag or Spud is a generation that has lost something precious.

This will not be a political or religious blog. I believe traditional pleasures and values are neither liberal nor conservative. However, because both subjects seem to color modern discourse and divide people into competing camps, I’m going to clarify just where I stand, so there is no mistake.

Religiously, I am a Catholic Christian. Politically, I am a Distributist, which is a “third-way” economic system located between Capitalism and Socialism on the political spectrum. Articulated by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc—the twin titans of 20th century English literature—the system is best summarized in Chesterton’s phrase, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

I’m not going to bang on about these subjects, and (yes, I’m saying it once more) I will not make this either a political or religious blog. I may well never mention it again, but I think it cuts to the heart of what I believe, which places me in the camp of traditionalist conservative (NOT Republican: there is a big difference). Like Chesterton, I believe the family unit is at the heart of civilization, and I believe that one of the ways families share joy with each other, their friends, and their community is in the way they play. In this way, games are bound up in our lives and our attitudes, indeed: in our very culture. Play cuts clean across all lines that would divide.

Now, as someone who spent a year as an anthropology major, I have an unfortunate tendency to try to attach meanings to things that are probably meaningless. Nonetheless, I think games in all their many manifestations can tell us much about a society. Each episode of Iron Chef begins with the quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are.” Much as I love good food and The Chairman, I think it’s more correct to say, “Tell me what you PLAY, and I will tell you who you are.”

Of course, the human experience cannot be reduced to such a simple equation, but there is still much truth in it. We are defined in part by work, in part by belief, and in part by leisure. Our ample leisure time is one of the most profound products of modern civilization. Compared to our forebears, we are presented with bounteous free time in which to pursue our interests, but too often we just wind up watching TV.

I love TV as much as the next guy, but it’s passive and largely anti-social. When a family is watching TV, they are facing a single direction and rarely interacting. When they’re playing a game, they are face-to-face. You’ll know someone a lot better after a round of Settlers of Catan or a hand of Rummy than you will after an hour of Wicked Housewives of the Jersey Shore, or whatever garbage is currently lapping at the edge of the media swamp.

Since this post is also running long again, we’ll break it into one final introductory piece, called Part the Third, In Which I Explain What this Blog Is and Isn’t.

What's This Blog About?

Okay, we’re in the home stretch of this long and slightly windy introduction, and now is a good time to remind you that I won’t usually go on at this length. My posts will probably be shorter and more to the point

1. If you’re wondering what this blog will cover, the answer is simple: games. ANY kind of games. I will not make distinctions among board, card, yard, computer, video, role-playing or casino games. If it interests me, and I have something to say, I will cover it.

2. These entries will be personal and casual. This not an exhaustive blog and I’m not attempting to issue The Final Word on a particular subject. If anyone has a different opinion on a game or a topic, my answer will almost always be “You might be right.” I’m not look for heavy debates or flame wars. I’ve been there and done it. I’m tired of it.

3. I will leave comments open for now, with the normal caveats about language, personal insults, and remaining on topic. This is not They do the forum, discussion, community-building job perfectly well, but some of the posting can get a little heated. When the topic is games, which are such a personal and frequently subjective topic, it seems a little silly to get all het up. Yes, I will make fun of games, and some of them might be your FAVORITE GAME EVER. If you like Risk, for instance, I’m very happy for you and wish you much joy in playing it. If you try to start a game of it in my home, however, I will kill you slowly and painfully.

4. I’m also not going to do wall-to-wall news coverage, track new releases, or leap on every bit of gossip. There are places that do that job amply well, and I’ll recommend them in a future post.

5. There will probably be less electronic entertainment coverage than some might expect, simply because I have multiple venues to voice those thoughts. As I’m preparing articles and issues, I may talk about what I’m doing, but I probably will not post a full review of [insert title of new PC/video game].

6. The sustainability of this blog is an open question. It depends upon traffic and time. I have no idea of what my posting level will be, but I doubt very much that it will be post after post all day long. I’m expecting to do a few a week for now, but we’ll see. If it takes off, I’ll do more.

And that’s about it for the preliminaries. I hope you enjoy what I have to say here, and that it helps increase the pleasure you find in play.